TORONTO — Hours after marijuana becomes legal, Toronto enforcement officers will fan out across the city looking for any illegal pot shops still open — the start of a cat-and-mouse game that is expected to play out over the next six months.
Ontario will have no brick-and-mortar cannabis stores until April 1, 2019, with the only legal retailer being a provincial government-run online store.
The owners of the dozens of illegal pot dispensaries that have popped up in the city over the last few years have been promised an amnesty of sorts: Shut down by Oct. 17 and you can apply for a retail licence.
City officials say those who don’t comply will be given a warning to start and escalation will follow.
“It’s not carte blanche, it’s not a free-for-all, we will continue sustained enforcement,” said Tracey Cook, the city’s executive director of municipal licensing and standards.
Under a new law that goes into effect on Wednesday, the city will have the power to order the interim closure of illegal pot dispensaries through a court order.
Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders said the dispensaries will eventually be shut down, but not on Wednesday due to resource issues.
“There will not be 100,000 police officers landing in the city of Toronto shutting down every element of a dispensary, but we will be shutting them down,” he told reporters Tuesday.
There were about 85 illegal pot dispensaries in Toronto three years ago, but that number dropped to about 30 following a police crackdown in May 2016, said Cook.
“In the last two months it shot back up to 80 locations again, which I think is absolutely foolish given they’re jeopardizing their lawful opportunities,” she said. “But I can’t speak for the smarts of anyone breaking the law.”
At least three Toronto dispensaries have told The Canadian Press they will continue to operate after legalization, arguing the lack of physical stores until April means there will be a “gold rush” for those willing to break the law. More than 20 dispensaries hung up when asked about their plans.
“From Oct. 17 to April is where the money’s at,” said the co-owner of a dispensary that will stay open on Wednesday and did not want his name used for fear of criminal prosecution. “After that, they’ll be open on every corner so now’s the time to make money.”
The co-owner, whose pot shop is located in the city’s downtown, said he plans to stay one step ahead of the city and police by complying with warnings and moving to a new location with new owners and new landlords.
“The real owners aren’t on any paper,” he said. “We are not worried about it. The black market will exist and will be strong.”
Both the city and police said they know about such tactics and have various investigative techniques to deal with it.
Jamie McConnell also wants in on the illicit “gold rush,” but he’s still facing 15 drug-trafficking-related charges stemming from two police raids of his pot shop, Sea of Green, in August.
If he could resolve those charges soon — the provincial government has said previous pot charges wouldn’t preclude someone from receiving a retail license — McConnell said he would reopen his business before April to take advantage of the lack of physical pot shops.
“It’s also going to be hella lucrative if everybody else is closing,” he said.
Justin Loizos is going the safe route. He said he’ll close his shop, called Just Compassion, and apply for a license. He started using pot several years ago in last-ditch effort to deal with multiple sclerosis.
Now he operates his shop for a group of members who have government-issued medicinal marijuana permits. His plan is to use his shop as a vapour lounge for members until April, which he said will put a strain on his finances.
“It’s unfortunate, but I might have to seek capital,” Loizos said.
But he has dreams of one day running his own “micro-grow” where he grows his own marijuana and sells it on site, like the craft breweries that have become popular around the country.
“Running a business is hard, retail is challenging. There are so many unknowns and if you do get in, there are so many big players to compete with,” he said.
“It will be hard, but it’s exciting, it really is. It’s like the gold rush.”
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press